'Midnight Rider' Trial: 1st A.D. Hillary Schwartz Found Guilty, Sentenced to Probation
Schwartz waived her right to a jury and received a bench trial.
JESUP, GEORGIA — Midnight Rider first assistant director Hillary Schwartz was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass on Tuesday.
She was sentenced to 10 years' probation and a $5,000 fine. Under the terms of her probation, she cannot serve as a director, producer, first A.D. or any department head responsible for crew safety on any film or TV production.
Schwartz, who pled not guilty when she was indicted in September, appeared in Wayne County superior court on Tuesday, where she waived her right to a jury and received a bench trial.
Her attorneys, Todd Brooks and Austin Catts, presented no evidence.
The only witness called was Wayne County sheriff's department detective Joe Gardner, who testified under examination by the prosecuting assistant district attorney John Johnson. He described his investigation of the train collision that killed camera assistant Sarah Jones during the Midnight Rider shoot and the safety protocols Schwartz and other crew members should have followed.
In Johnson's examination, he played for the courtroom footage of the Midnight Rider crew rushing from the railroad tracks to safety. The roughly 30-second clip showed crew members dragging the bed to be used in a dream sequence with William Hurt, with a train whistle blowing in the background. The video ended with an explosion of noise.
Gardner confirmed that Jones was killed when a piece of the bed pushed her in the way of the train. She sustained 33 external and 12 internal injuries and died when the fuel tank struck her, he testified.
Schwartz was partly responsible for the safety of the set, including attaching a bulletin on railroad safety to the shoot's "call sheet" for the crew and ensuring its guidelines were followed. The bulletin wasn't attached, and numerous points, like keeping objects off the tracks and having railroad officials present, weren't followed, testified Gardner.
"I'd like to take a moment just to emphasize in the film industry the importance of the A.D. They are in charge of safety. That emphasizes that Hillary Schwartz apparently failed in her duty," Jones' father Richard told judge Anthony Harrison before the sentencing. "That being said, this is a very difficult decision for [Sarah's mother] Elizabeth and myself, but considering the situation we are in agreement with the D.A. for this resolution."
Schwartz received a probation sentence because she helped prosecutors reconstruct the events of Jones' death and understand the logistics of a film shoot. "We looked at recommending some time, and I spoke to the family about that, but in light of the cooperation of her and her counsel in putting this case together, we would ask the court consider a probative sentence," District Attorney Jackie Johnson told the judge before the sentencing. The judge accepted her proposed sentence.
"I have considered, Ms. Schwartz, the impact that this tragedy has had on your life and the fact that you did come forward in bring this matter out in the open and to a conclusion," Harrison told her.
Schwartz’s attorneys declined to comment on the verdict.
Schwartz was the fourth defendant in the criminal case over Jones' death. The other three defendants — director Randall Miller, his producer and wife, Jody Savin, and executive producer Jay Sedrish — faced the same charges.
In court Monday, Miller pled guilty in a deal that included the charges against Savin being dropped. His 10-year sentence includes two years in jail, a $20,000 fine and 360 community service hours. Sedrish received 10 years' probation and a $10,000 fine.
Until recently, Schwartz was part of their case, but her case was separated from theirs in February.
After the proceedings, Jackie Johnson said the attention paid to the case will create change in the industry. "People that would still have shot and been reckless with people's lives might think twice," she said. She said the train operator denying the crew permission to film on the tracks was the most essential element of the case. "I think it's easy to call this an accident. This is a very preventable tragedy," she said.
"I think the person that is most responsible is the one doing the jail time," she added.
Said John Johnson, "Crew members know that they can speak up. Directors, producers and assistant directors have responsibilities."
Mar. 10, 12:45 p.m. Updated with comments and information on Schwartz' sentencing.
Mar. 10, 4:14 p.m. Updated with comments from district attorneys.